Thomas Laqueur has a thoughtful and thought-provoking LRB review of Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor/Hiroshima/9-11/Iraq, by John Dower; while the substance of the review is not LH-related, this paragraph prompts me to ask the assembled multitudes about something that’s bothered me for a long time:
While Dower’s instances of these failures are historically specific, the failures themselves are not. One could map much of what he rails against onto the ‘idols of the human mind’ that Francis Bacon identified in The Advancement of Learning, his great call for a new inductively and empirically grounded way of thinking. Bacon’s ‘idols of the tribe’ – the ‘false mirror’ of human understanding – distort the world just as what Dower sees as false history distorts the politics of our day; the ‘idols of the cave’ (doctrines and ideas based on personal prejudice and experience) are not unlike Dower’s ‘faith-based’ policies; the ‘idols of the market’ (errors we fall into as our minds make unwarranted connections between words and ideas) include the way we treat Pearl Harbor, Ground Zero, Hiroshima; and the ‘idols of the theatre’ (prejudices that stem from religious and philosophical systems) are what we would call ideology, racism and, still, religion. The cultures of war addressed by Dower may be contemporary, but they display long-recognised kinds of muddled thinking.
Now, I must have first encountered the phrase “idols of the tribe” when I was in high school, and I’ve seen it and his other categories used frequently in the many years since. (You can get a different summary of them at Wikipedia.) Yet I’ve never come close to assimilating them; there’s something about the phrases “idols of the X” that makes my mind go as blank as when I try to read Derrida. What I want to know is whether this is a personal peculiarity or a general problem (which would presumably imply that our habits of thinking and categorizing have changed to some extent since Bacon’s day). So: when you read “idols of the tribe” do you automatically translate that to “humans’ tendency to perceive more order and regularity in systems than truly exists,” or do you think (as I do) “Oh lord, it’s one of those Baconian categories I can never keep straight, guess I’d better look it up yet again”?
Also, hearty congratulations to wood s lot and its creator Mark Woods, who’s been sharing great links for eleven years now (and lately his excellent photography as well). Keep up the good work!